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Driving in Russia

Posted by MrNatch3L on Thursday, May 21, 2009

This morning I drove our car for the first time in Russia. I had driven it only once before when we were in Estonia. My wife is going out of town on the train for a few days, returning on the weekend. It was much simpler all the way around for her to take the metro into the city and catch her train this evening. But leaving the car parked for several days at an end-of-the-line metro station is not a good idea, so we decided I would drive the car back from the station to the house today, and I'll drive in and pick her up at the metro on Sunday morning.

Paradigm Shift
I have not driven here before this because the whole paradigm is different. I started driving on my granddad's Missouri farm and the Ozark back roads as soon as I could reach the pedals of the pickup. I was steering sitting on his lap for years before that. I have been driving according to the American paradigm for too long to adjust well (and safely) here. I managed the drive thru the outskirts to the country roads fine. But I still would still not attempt to drive in the city except as an emergency measure.

It's difficult to find the words to describe the paradigm shift. I've thought about it a lot riding as a passenger for the last couple of years. But thinking philosophically (or at all) is not easy when your heart is in your throat half the time, and you're flinching and cringing most of the rest of the time, if not outright panicking. At first I thought it was the road conditions. Those are not what I'm used to. Most of the time there are no lanes painted. When there are, people are hesitant to commit to one, and as often as not they straddle the line. Some of that could be due to the fact that the licensing system is corrpupt and a lot of people get licensed by greasing the right palm and are thus out on the road with minimal driving skills and virtually no training or experience. Straddling the line helps them go straight. But you can find similar non-commital to lanes in Paris or Rome or Madrid. At lest there, they always have lanes. The idea people have about lanes here seems to be something like "Where there is one lane, at least 3 cars will fit, where there are 2 lanes, 6 cars will fit" and so on. That's part of the paradigm shift, but that's not really it.

Negotiating Intersections
There are the intersections. One of my favorites is the Petrogradskaya end of the bridge from Vassilievsky Island, which is illustrative of how things work here. It's a 6 lane bridge with tram tracks down the middle between the 3 lanes going in either direction. At the end of the bridge is a traffic light and you have to turn left or right because oncoming traffic from across the intersection is one way coming at you. There are no painted lanes, but very clear overhead signs (something of a novelty in this city) indicate 2 left-turn-only lanes and 1 right-turn-only lane. A tram  in the center may be turning either left or right, usually right, cutting across the 2 left-turn lanes (which just adds to the fun I'm about to describe). The right-turn lane is equipped with a right-turn arrow signal. Got the picture? Now here's how things work.

Two lanes are going to turn left, but people make that 3 to 4 by driving on the tram tracks (technically illegal, but who cares?) So at the light you have 3 to 4 lanes jammed up to turn left into 2 lanes, one of which becomes a right turn only lane in about 100 meters (therein lines another story). But when you get up near the light, you invariably find that someone in one of the  left turning "lanes" (or in occasional extremities, on the far left) has realized they need to turn right and they proceed to do it, blocking the intersection and rasing many hackles, to which they remain oblivious unless they get smacked by an oncoming car that couldn't see them for the delivery truck it was attempting to whip cleverly around. See "Bird Watching" below. This generally creates still more congestion, intersting automotive acrobatics or attempts at same, and perhaps 1 additional lane of cars somewhere possibly on the sidewalk (OK, I'm exaggerating about the sidewalk.)

The scenario is further complicated by the fact that the right turn arrow signal in the right lane is green most of the time because traffic coming from the left cannot go straight thru the intersection (at least not without driving over an island). So while the 2 left lanes and the tram tracks are jammed waiting for the light, traffic is moving in the far right lane. Therefore a lot of people jump over into the right lane  and zoom up to the light where, disregarding the fact that it's a right turn lane, they proceed to perpare to turn left, adding another 1 to 2 lanes to the 3 to 4 lanes already jammed up to turn left into 2 lanes. So that's 6 lanes. I'm not exaggerating, I swear! So part of the paradigm shift is that anybody may be turning any direction from any lane. But that still doesn't sum it up.

Ego Trips and ***** Envy
Some of it involves big ego trips. Until the faily recent advent of SUVs, right of way was largely determined by how expensive your Mercedes was. The bigger and more potent your Mercedes, the more right of way. Now it seems to have evolved into a combination of car price and brute bulk. It now seems mostly a case of He With the Biggest SUV has the right of way (and is not hesitant about taking it). In short, a certain kind of masculine envy (which shall here remain nameless) ported over into the automotive world. The following passage from Kenneth Graham's "The Wind in the Willows" seems to me appropos of Russian SUV drivers:

"...he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smiten into nothingness and everlasting night."

Bird Watching
Another major factor in the shift is the Weaver Bird. You may think you have seen this bird in your neck of the woods, but what you may have seen is only a tamer sub-species I assure you. The Weaver Bird here may come around you on the left or the right (including the road shoulder). He will often appear suddenly at a startling speed from around the bus that is behind you. On wide roads he may execute this maneuver zipping across a couple of lanes from the right or left. You can often encounter this bird in the oncoming lane of 2-lane suburban and country  highways just as you crest a hill or round a blind curve.

The Weaver Bird has an unusual survival tactic. He confidently passes slower-moving birds on slopes, curves, and other places of limited visibility because he knows  that no other bird desires a head-on collision with him at highway speeds, and thus he can count on their survival instinct to cause them to take the necessary evasive measures to stay alive, thereby preserving the life of the Weaver Bird in the process. The Weaver Bird also believes (though sometimes with less sure results) that other birds will go to extremes to avoid  rear-ending him as he weaves suddenly back into his own lane (with either no signal or one quick, half-hearted blink), preferring  to jam on their brakes and be rear-ended themselves by the Clinging Follower Bird (a common species who migrates from place to place riding on the tails of other birds).

A few Weaver Birds are removed from the gene pool sandwiched between heavy trucks each year, but not enough to to adversely affect the Weaver Bird population or provide any real satisfaction to other birds.

A City Full of Teenage Drivers
You see the paradigm shifting? Another part of it is the fact that in the former USSR, very few people had cars. Now there are tons of them, and most of the folks in them have little driving experience. Imagine a whole city full drivers with the experience of your average American 17 year old (without the Drivers Ed classes), and many with a similar behind the wheel mentality to that of your basic hormone-wracked teenage male experiencing the first thrill of independence.

I think I get it now
Driving home from the metro today helped something about the paradigm shift to click. I think I can now describe it in far fewer words than I have used up to now. The difference between the driving paradigm of my native USA and the driving paradigm of my adoptive home country is essentially the difference between driving to over Grandma's house and driving in a stock car race. The objective of the first is to get there. The objective of the second is to get there FIRST, otherwise YOU LOSE.

Having figured this out, I think I may stand a better chance of adapting. It'll still be a long time (if ever) before I really get into the local stock car race. Real stock car drivers are generally skilled and experienced, and take only intelligent, calculated risks. The stock car drivers I'll be up against here aren't real ones, whatever they may imagine between their ears.

It's kind of odd when you think about it, because most of the folks in cars are probably really nice, straight-ahead people when they're out of them. But the Toad syndrome grips them as soon as the engine starts. Something snaps when they get behind the wheel. And then it's "poop-poop" - look out world!



Here's how my wife found our car in the parking lot when she left work. Hit and run. Probably a garbage truck according to police.

6 comments on “Driving in Russia”

FiddlerFaddler Says:
Thursday, May 21, 2009 @4:42:52 AM

Sounds like there is desperate need for Drivers Education there.  Good luck surviving the birds and toads on the road.

pilgrim1 Says:
Thursday, May 21, 2009 @5:24:56 AM

Sounds a bit like Central London on any given day!

Ks_5-picker Says:
Thursday, May 21, 2009 @5:02:21 PM

sounds awful to me here in kansas.Enjoyed the story.

dikdik Says:
Monday, May 25, 2009 @9:04:42 AM

Have they roundabouts (traffic circles) too?

MrNatch3L Says:
Monday, May 25, 2009 @9:35:50 AM

Ks_5-picker; When we moved here from the States my kids were always telling me "You're not in Kansas anymore, Toto!" :-)) Say that again.

dikdik: In general, no, and I think I'm glad of it. I love roundabouts in Western Europe though. I've spent a lot of time either completely lost or unsure of the route (espacially in Belgium), and roundabouts are great. You can go round and round until you figure out which way you need to go.

MrNatch3L Says:
Monday, May 25, 2009 @9:47:24 AM

Lest anyone think I exaggerate.

Moscow's Tunnel of Death
Pretty typical St. Petersburg driving

Thanks Jon K. for the links!

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